Prevent Childhood Injuries and Reduce Obesity: Sit At a Table to Eat. Simple as That.

Posted on May 16, 2012


Time magazine ran an article about the hidden dangers of bottles and sippy cups.  Intrigued, I thought:  what could it be?  BPAs?  Some kind of choking hazard?  Not exactly.  It would seem that between 1991 and 2010, some 45,000 toddlers went to the emergency room for injuries sustained in falls while cups or bottles were in their mouths.

Now, I am a child of the 1960s, so my first thought was: what are these toddlers doing standing, wobbling, teetering, and tottering around with objects in their mouths, and especially food-related objects, which – unlike toys or pacifiers – are intended to put something into the mouth to be swallowed?  I see two big problems here.

First, the aforementioned danger of injury.  As children of the 1960s and 1970s, we were repeatedly told not only never to run with knives or scissors, but never to walk around while eating and drinking.  Our parents seemed to have a perverse collective fear that, even as tweens, we would fall and ram a spoon down our throats.  And sippy cups didn’t even exist for the younger set; we went straight from bottle to cup, with all the spills one might expect from that.  Thus, eating was generally confined to the high chair, and later, to the dining table.  Most parents preferred to confine the inevitable spills to the kitchen, rather than following a sloshing, crumb-shedding toddler all over the house.  An examination of the family albums shows that our adventures appear to have been remarkably food-and-drink free.  If we wanted food, we had to sit down to eat.  If we wanted to play, we had to leave the table.  The two activities were kept mostly separate.

The second problem is one of obesity.  Today, our nation wrings its collective hands over our skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and all of its attendant ills – including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, asking, “Why?  What is causing this?  Is it the sugar?  The high fructose corn syrup?”  For some reason, it seems to elude people that we just eat more calories these days, and I have an idea why.  It’s those dang sippy cups!  No, seriously, it’s two phenomena.

First, the easy availability of food and the bloating of portion sizes.  The first McDonald’s franchise opened in 1955.  By 1968, there were 1000 restaurants; by 1975, they began drive-through service; now, there are more than 13,000 US restaurants.  Now multiply that number by the many other fast-food chains out there, and we are inundated with fast, convenient, cheap food that we can grab anytime, and eat on the go.  Oh, and throw in the proliferation of pre-wrapped snack cakes and the ever-increasing size of candy bars.  Or observe the growth in the size of sugary drinks that are served in fast-food places, or the size of restaurant portions.  To paraphrase a certain politician:  It’s not the sugar, stupid.  It’s the sheer amount of it.

The second thing is a shift in culture:  there was a time, not so long ago, when it was considered cloddish to walk around eating and drinking.  There is this observation from former stewardess Nancy Hult Ganis, who served with Pan Am in the 1960s:

“About a week ago, we were setting up a scene in Pan Am’s terminal at Idlewild, which became JFK Airport, and one of the prop-masters asked me what kind of cups people would use walking around to drink their coffee. I started to laugh and I said, ‘Nobody would ever drink anything in an open can or cup. It was considered completely gauche.’ And he said, ‘Gauche‘? I said, ‘The food courts and things like that just didn’t exist. You would either go into a VIP lounge or they would go to a restaurant and be served.’”

Now it is acceptable – even expected –  to walk around constantly eating and drinking.  The sippy cup is complicit because it is one of the many things that enabled parents to let their toddlers eat and drink anywhere, anytime.  Consider, too, that decades ago, children were generally forbidden to eat in the car.  For that matter, adults generally did not eat and drink in the car, either; cars did not come with cupholders (my 1988 Dodge did not have any).  Anyone else notice that over time, we have traded ashtrays for cupholders in cars?  But I digress.  Today’s family van is not a “real” family van unless it has six months’ worth of sodden crackers and half-chewed Cheerios wedged into the cushions, juice stains, and a smell of sour milk emanating from under the seats, because we can’t conceive of denying our children (or ourselves) snacks and drinks even for the time it takes to drive somewhere.  Thus we establish a lifelong, ingrained habit of constantly consuming calories all day long.  We walk around with our triple-latte-mocha coffees with whipped cream.  We graze in supermarkets, and I don’t mean just sampling the grapes.  We snack mindlessly at our desks, or in front of the TV.

In short, food used to be inconvenient, and confined largely to the dining table.  Today, it is too easy and too ubiquitous, and those two things condense down into one thing:  we eat too damn many calories.

So, we can solve two problems in one fell swoop:  preventing childhood sippy-cup injuries, and reducing obesity require only that we confine food and drink to the dining table.  Not only will it not kill our kids to not have something in their mouths all the time, it is actually beneficial.

Originally published at The Color of Lila.